As we commemorate the 12th anniversary of 9/11, an important but often overlooked question to ask is: What have Muslim women been doing since 9/11 to promote peace and justice?
It’s a question few think to ask because—according to our popular stereotypes—Muslim women are either too in thrall to dangerous narratives of extremism or too downtrodden and subordinated to play an active role as agents for peace.
As curator for the International Museum of Women’s global exhibition, Muslima: Muslim Women’s Art & Voices, I’ve come to a very different view. In fact, I’ve come to realize that Muslim women are an unsung, secret resource in what you might term a global jihad for peace and justice.
While curating the Muslima exhibition, I’ve had the opportunity to meet hundreds of Muslim women leaders, writers, and artists from around the world. The diversity among these women is breathtaking: different languages, cultures, artistic expressions, different spectrums of faith. Yet I’ve discovered that the one passion that animates each woman beyond all other is the work she’s been doing over the past decade to create more tolerance and equality in her country through creative and often brave endeavors.
For example, Egyptian graffiti artist SuzeeintheCity is using the walls of her city as a canvas to express her yearning for peace and self-expression. Graffiti art may not seem on the surface to be a form of serious resistance, but “when you live under a police state of constant oppression and fear,” SuzeeintheCity tells Muslima in an interview, “it’s only natural that the walls are completely bare and if there’s any art it’s government sanctioned and sponsored … [such as] support for Mubarak and his family.”
Add to this that the total adult literacy rate in Egypt is a mere 66 percent, making visual dissemination of information more effective than text, and the message of SuzeeintheCity and other street artists featured in Muslima becomes clear: In the face of their government’s escalating policing on freedom and rights, these resilient activists refuse to be bullied into silence.
Another woman who refuses to be silenced is Alka Sadat. Living in Afghanistan, where the Taliban once ruled and all forms of media were banned—TV, magazines, newspapers, anything with images of people—she bravely works as an award-winning documentary filmmaker.
When I spoke to her for Muslima, she admitted that whenever “I walk down the street I’m always afraid that someone may try to kill me.”
The Taliban and the government have tried to assassinate the subject of her latest documentary, Maria Bashir. The film, Half Value Life, chronicles the daily struggles of Bashir, who is the country’s only female prosecutor general. Working in Herat, one of the country’s most corrupt cities, Bashir has taken on the mission of educating women of their legal and Islamic rights to equality. Empowered by their knowledge, women are filing police reports in record numbers against male abusers.
When I asked Bashir why she puts her own life in danger to save other women’s lives, she told me that justice can only be reached when women are “aware of their rights… I tell them that if they work in the government of Afghanistan, they can have a significant role in the rule of law, and specifically justice for women.”
Alka Sadat echoes Bashir’s sentiments, explaining that equality of gender rights will bring greater human rights to Afghanistan, which will result in peace. “If we have peace, it means more people can get an education and learn about women’s rights,” she says.
Why are Sadat and Bashir so convinced that greater justice for women will lead to greater peace? In a place like Afghanistan, the treatment of women can be a great litmus test for rising ideologies. With both the upcoming 2014 elections as well as the withdrawal of U.S. troops, the danger that the Taliban could return to power is a threat to not only the women in Afghanistan but to peace everywhere.
The fact is that women understand—and are key to confronting—extremism because it is too often they who are the victims of it.
Dalia Mogahed, the former executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies agrees that women are key to countering extremism, right at its very source. She says that when we listen more carefully to terrorists, what “we hear beneath the religious veneer is a fundamentally political, not religious, argument. From the Boston bombers to the gruesome murder of a British soldier in Woolwich, terrorists justify their violence by citing modern grievances not medieval exegesis.” Not only do terrorists groups like Al Qaeda represent fringe elements, Mogahed explains that Muslims are in fact “Al Qaeda’s number one victims.” Al Qaeda exploits young men’s “anger at oftentimes legitimate grievances, to recruit them into a life of crime.”
The best way to prevent this? “Women,” Mogahed says, “as mothers, teachers, scholars and community leaders play a vital role” in educating young Muslims to have a strong understanding that the Islam of the Quran is in opposition to the ideology of Al Qaeda.
Twelve years on from 9/11, as we commemorate our nation’s loss, let’s also set aside our stereotypes of Muslims—and especially Muslim women—to imagine the potential of a global jihad for peace. Far from being passive, Muslim women—artists, community leaders, mothers—are bravely leading the charge.
Samina Ali is the curator of Muslima: Muslim Women's Arts & Voices, a groundbreaking online exhibition from the International Museum of Women. Ali's debut novel, Madras on Rainy Days, was awarded the Prix Premier Roman Étranger 2005 Award in France. She is also the cofounder of Daughters of Hajar, a Muslim American feminist organization.